Sending telegrams was formerly a very fast method of communication. Using telegraph offices in stores, people paid clerks to type and transmit their messages. In the Cage is concerned with one such office, located in London; the its protagonist is a young woman who sends telegrams, working within a “cage” or enclosure. As she sees people coming and going, all far wealthier than she is, she speculates about their lives. Reading the messages that they send, she also gains some understanding of their affairs—but not, as it turns out, as much as she imagines.
This young woman, who remains an unnamed protagonist, has become engaged to a former coworker, Mr. Mudge; he has gotten a promotion and transfer, and he is encouraging her to move and marry him so they can begin their life together. She cannot muster much enthusiasm, however; Mudge seems very dull to her and she is not eager to leave the city.
Two other characters are people who catch the young clerk’s fancy: Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard. First the elegant woman frequents the telegraph office, sending frequent wires. Then the captain arrives, after a period of living on the Continent. The clerk is immediately impressed by his good looks and elegant bearing. These two customers do not utilize the office at the same time but do sometimes send telegrams to each other. Increasingly intrigued by the handsome captain, the clerk begins to fantasize about what a life would be like with him compared to the secure marriage to Mudge. One day when she is emboldened to seek the captain out at his residence, they sit outside and converse on a bench. Encouraged by what she takes as his interest in her, she postpones her wedding.
Back at the office, Everard asks her for information on a wire that Lady Bradeen has sent some time earlier, and, breaking all the rules of confidentiality, the clerk reveals its contents. Relieved at what he hears, he leaves—the last time she sees him. Some time later, via a coworker, she hears the news of their engagement, as well as the related gossip. Everard, far from a wealthy elite, was a social climber who has manipulated the titled woman into marriage. Far from being privy to her customers’ secrets, the clerk has not only been used by one of them but is far out of the loop when it comes to gossip.
The protagonist of “In the Cage” is a young woman whose identity is never revealed by Henry James, thus reinforcing the very anonymity of her status in life: She works in the post-and-telegraph cage of Cocker’s store in the Mayfair section of West London. From the outset, James makes clear two facts about her personal life. First, she has grown up and still lives in relative poverty. As a consequence, she does not look kindly on the many idle rich who come to Cocker’s day after day to send telegrams.
Second, she is engaged to a grocer named Mr. Mudge. He is a most caring, decent man; he is, however, also dull and pedestrian. She does not encourage him as he sets forth tentative wedding plans. The principal reason for her reluctance to marry has to do with her fascination with the upper-class patrons of Cocker’s. For some time she has carried on a love/hate affair with them—in her mind. She knows that these privileged people are boring and profligate, and often engage in illicit liaisons. Although she has confided to a friend that she sees them as “selfish brutes,” she is driven by a genuine fascination with them. Like many of James’s characters, she is an inquisitive person: She has to know what is going on in their lives. When she waits on them, she sharply scrutinizes them; she carefully listens to their conversations; and she quickly memorizes their telegrams. From these gleanings, her hyperactive imagination is quite capable of rendering for her in most dramatic fashion their current anxieties,...
(The entire section contains 1456 words.)
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